10.27.08

Bad News, Darling, We're Broke

Pampered housewives thought their gilded age would last forever. Then came the meltdown.

Mrs. Richan Vulgar is extremely unhappy these days, and Mrs. Toplofty’s got the vapors too, poor dear. There’s nothing like a global economic collapse to ruffle the serenity imparted by even the most relaxing yoga class, and it’s so difficult to enjoy your afternoon decaf skim latte as the Dow hurtles downward like some suicidal skydiver. Where’s the goddamn safety net? Oh, I forgot, Mrs. Richan Vulgar—you said you didn’t need one!

Back in 1922, when Emily Post published her manifesto on etiquette, her goal was to instruct America’s nouveaux riches—including her favorite characters, the Richan Vulgars, the Toploftys, the Eminents, and the Gildings—about how to behave. Judging by the enduring success of Post’s magnum opus, arrivistes everywhere were touchingly grateful for her primer on what to do—and what not to do.

As the economic meltdown accelerated, you could practically hear the cries of anguish emanating from such havens as New Canaan, Connecticut, a town whose Stepford-style wives were, until recently, given to saying things like “Nobody in New Canaan works!”

But the pampered wives of our own gilded age have been aggressively hostile toward anyone who tried to warn them about which pitfalls to avoid—as I discovered last year when I published a book about what happens when women stop earning a living and rely on their husbands to support them. The purpose of The Feminine Mistake was to document the dangers of economic dependency and the benefits of paying work for women; my research demonstrated that even the most affluent wives put their futures at grave risk when they sacrifice their ability to earn a living on the assumption that a high-earning husband will always foot the bill.

Nobody likes bad news, so I didn’t really expect America’s homemakers to give me any Miss Congeniality awards. But I certainly didn’t anticipate the firestorm that greeted the publication of The Feminine Mistake. To many stay-at-home moms, I instantly become Feminist Enemy Number One; I was excoriated in the blogosphere, banned and boycotted by organizations catering to homemakers, and vilified in countless television, radio and print attacks. Along with my book, they trashed my appearance, my marriage, my children, and even my dog. I was dumbfounded by the intensity of their venom; all I’d asked women to do was look at the facts, but so many reacted with such poisonous outrage you’d have thought I told them to roast their toddlers on a spit.

The facts are quite clear. When women opt out of the workforce, most intend to return later on, but the barriers to reentry are formidable, and few ever find well-paid full-time jobs with benefits. Unfortunately many women encounter challenges that unexpectedly require them to resume earning a living, from divorce to the death of a spouse; the average age of widowhood is 54, and by the time American women reach 60, two-thirds of them no longer have partners. As a result, the poverty rate among older women is twice that of men. Meanwhile, working women are not only more secure, but also happier and healthier than full-time homemakers—and their children turn out just as well as those of stay-at-home mothers.

Notwithstanding such well-established facts, the assumptions of the opt-out generation were based on fantasies: their marriages would last forever, the booming economy would expand indefinitely, and their husbands would always be healthy, employed, and raking in the big bucks. These women were infuriated by the idea that they might someday need to support their families—or that it might be difficult to do so. When I documented the barriers women encounter in returning to the workforce, stay-at-home wives insisted those obstacles would soon disappear, thanks to the “looming labor shortage”—I must have had that phrase thrown at me 800 times—that would soon be created by retiring baby boomers.

What a difference a year makes! As the economic meltdown accelerated, you could practically hear the cries of anguish emanating from such havens as New Canaan, Connecticut, a town whose Stepford-style wives were, until recently, given to saying things like “Nobody in New Canaan works!”—as one of the stay-at-home moms I quoted in my book put it.

But now the financial institutions that employed their husbands are crumbling; the men’s jobs have disappeared almost as fast as the grotesquely bloated bonuses that financed those Gatsby-esque lifestyles. Hedge funds that once seemed impregnable are evaporating like drops of water sizzling on a hot skillet. Ffftttt! All gone. Not a trace left behind.

The Mrs. Richan Vulgars can scarcely believe what’s happening. “People are totally freaking out,” says Marilena Greig, a divorced New Canaan stay-at-home mom I interviewed for The Feminine Mistake. “I go to yoga in Greenwich with a lot of these women who spend their days shopping. Now their husbands have lost their jobs, and people are terrified. They’re pulling the plug on everything; they’re telling their kids, ‘That’s it!’ These are people who live in 30,000-square-foot houses, but a lot of them live on the edge; they’re leveraged not only in their accounts, but in their lives. There are a lot of ‘For Sale’ signs on these properties now, but the houses are not moving. And two-thirds of the marriages in Fairfield County end in divorce. There are so many women going to these job counselors, but they’ve been out of the work force for 20 years. What do they do to make money? How do they support their lifestyles?”

My questions precisely. But last year, these women didn’t want to think about such things, and now it’s too late. Marilena Greig was smarter than most; after I interviewed her, she decided not to wait until her alimony ended, and went out and found a job. It’s not an easy gig—cold-calling to sell supplemental insurance on commission, with no salary. But Greig is the kind of go-getter who could sell ice to Eskimos, so she’s doing great.

Most women in her situation are far less fortunate; for every happy ending I come across, I must hear a thousand hard-luck stories from women in desperate straits who are unable to earn a living. As for that “looming labor shortage” that was supposed to conjure up fabulous jobs, it has receded over the horizon; the baby boomers’ retirement savings have been decimated, and those boomers lucky enough to remain employed are hanging on for dear life. Every employer I’ve talked to lately is besieged by out-of-work job-seekers, and anyone who’s hiring has their pick of countless well-qualified candidates; all those frightened stay-at-home moms with big gaps on their resumes never even get an interview, let alone a job offer.

There’s no satisfaction in having been right about all this; my goal was to help women understand the risks they had unwittingly taken on, and their refusal to confront the truth provided eloquent testimony to my lack of success. But facing up to reality hasn’t been in vogue for quite a while—and it wasn’t just women who retreated defiantly into denial.

The Bush administration didn’t want to face the painful measures necessary to combat climate change, so they rejected the science documenting global warming. The White House didn’t want to acknowledge its failure to apprehend Osama bin Laden, so it pretended that waging war in Iraq would fight the Islamic terrorists responsible for 9/11. The Wall Street warriors enriching themselves beyond the wildest dreams of the greediest robber barons didn’t want to admit they were staking the American economy on quicksand, so they pretended the risks didn’t exist—until we all got sucked into the vortex. The consumers addicted to luxury spending refused to deal with their unsustainable credit card debt until it overwhelmed them. The decision-makers entrusted with our economic security closed their eyes to the consequences of our exploding national debt and pretended the bill would never come due.

And now all the bubbles have burst simultaneously, and there’s nothing left to do but face reality. As I found myself saying over and over again last year, the facts don’t change just because you refuse to look at them.

After she and her scandalously unfaithful husband divorced in 1905, Emily Post never uttered his name again, but she set an extra place at the dinner table every night until she died more than half a century later. Denial may have an impeccable pedigree, but it doesn’t work any better now than it did back then.